Charity, mutual aid, and class struggle
Charity, defined biblically, is an unlimited loving kindness towards others. It’s a virtue, and one that is recognised far beyond the Christian faith. After all, who could argue that giving to those less fortunate is wrong?
Anarchist communism would seem to be precisely the philosophy that encourages charity. The basic mantra of “from each according to his faculties, to each according to his need” gives many this impression. Charity also often goes hand-in-hand with the anarchist principle of mutual aid.
The two things, however, are very different.
After helping out at a relief clinic in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Molly McClure pondered the difference in concepts for Infoshop;
A big slogan at the Common Ground Clinic was “Solidarity not Charity,” which is easy to say, but what does it mean? And how do we know if what we’re doing is charity or solidarity— is it as simple as choosing to work with Common Ground instead of the Red Cross? This was one of the biggest lessons for me, and something I’m still thinking a lot about.
A definition of solidarity I’ve heard is that it’s about providing concrete support to an oppressed group so that they can more easily use their own power to change the conditions of their lives. As I understand it, solidarity is about working with people who are struggling for their own liberation in a way that means my future gets bound up with theirs.
On the other hand, charity is about me feeling good, assuaging guilt, feeling like I’m doing something about injustice but without actually threatening the status quo. Charity doesn’t really cost me anything, especially my self-image as being someone who’s down with the struggle and on the side of the oppressed. With charity I don’t have to acknowledge my privilege in a situation, and in the case of work in New Orleans, I don’t have to take responsibility for the fact that my family and I have materially benefited, historically and presently, from the racism that bludgeoned the south long before the hurricane. With charity, I don’t have to connect the dots between sudden catastrophes like Katrina, and the perhaps slower but very similar economic devastation happening in poor communities and communities of color, every day, right here, in my city. And most importantly, with charity, I don’t have risk that what I’m doing might truly transform society in such a way that white folks like me may not end up on top anymore, because charity actually reinforces existing relationships of power.
Charity has its limits as a way of helping people within the current system, which remains unchallenged. Solidarity and mutual aid, on the other hand, offer ways of helping each other not only to improve our situation within existing socio-economic structures, but to offer a tangible challenge to those structures. The parallel that springs to mind is the difference between reformism and radicalism.
But, though limited in important ways, surely charity can still do good?
Well, yes, it can. I’m not going to suggest that the starving child who receives a food parcel doesn’t benefit from it. Or that Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, don’t do good things for the victims of human rights abuses, war crimes, and natural disaster.
The problem is that the term “charity” is very broad, and doesn’t just apply to those examples.
Oh yes, charities. I’m not going to say they’re all a bunch of profiteering hucksters who line their founders’ pockets by tugging at the heartstrings and the purse strings of the people who can least afford it. Some of them are genuinely well-intentioned and do difficult and necessary jobs, as well as they can, taking only the minimum out of donations to cover their own administration. Some of them.
You have to wonder, though, why we need charities to rehabilitate offenders, provide legal advice to citizens in need, research cancer and heart disease and rescue and rehabilitate children from abuse when we pay taxes that are supposed to cover all of these things as basic necessities.
There is also a concern about who controls the charities. Corporate funding is the major part of most large charities’ income, and corporations don’t give out of the goodness of their hearts. When we give to, say, a charity researching cures for a particular disease, what happens when they find that cure? Will it be distributed for free, charitably, to all those who need it? Or will the patent mysteriously be held by a drugs company that was part-funding the charity, and so part-using public donations to fund research that it will ultimately use to profit from the very people it claimed to be altruistically helping?
This is the kind of manipulative use of “charity” we can expect to see from businesses wanting control over our public services for their own profits.
In this case, as the Liverpool Solidarity Federation affirmed, “charity” is “a veil for predatory capitalism to hide behind as it attacks the working class.”
Even without the “Big Society,” we can see the parasitic influence of the corporate on the charitable in the world of “chugging.” That is, the industry of charity mugging. On LibCom, one former worker fleshed out their personal experience with the following observation;
On one hand you have charities seeking to raise money motivated by global or local concerns, and on the other you have private companies offering a service on a commission basis. Last year in the UK an estimated 690,000 people were persuaded by “chuggers” to give financial support to a charity, according to figures from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association. At an average fee of £50 per sign-up, that suggests £34.5 million of donations going as income to the businesses. The big five are the Dialog Group Ltd, which runs the Face 2 Face Fundraising and Dialogue Direct agencies, Push Ltd, Gift Fundraising Ltd, Caring Together Ltd and Fruitful Fundraising UK Ltd. These are the commission sucking companies who’s prominence has unleashed the current wave of anti-chuggger backlash prompting some of the more major charities to set up in house companies to do the work directly.
In an edition of their magazine Rolling Thunder (PDF), CrimeThinc point out that “The philanthropist gives, but on his terms, thus emphasizing his property rights and position of privilege.” For them, “charity is the opposite of sharing.” They note that “as a rule, the less people have, the more they are willing to share.” Thus, “in place of charity, we would do well to develop ways of assisting one another in which we share not only resources but also, more importantly, control over them.”
How do we do that? In Liverpool SolFed’s words, “we need to build up a culture of self-management from below, and challenge attempts by government and capital to control our lives.” This is “the substance lacking from Cameron’s hollow words” – mutual aid.
In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin explains that “besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest.” That is, that mutual aid is not merely a vague and utopian communistic theory, but a driving force in evolution and a natural instinct.
There are several tangible forms that this force or principle can take.
In terms of finance and money, the most prevalent today are co-operative banks, and credit unions. Workers cooperatives are an example in industry, the principle of democratic worker-ownership in action. However, whilst each of these examples has their merits over more traditionally capitalist institutions, they still have their limitations.
As the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) argue, “collectives are not inherently revolutionary”;
For example, the closest example of a workers’ revolution involving collectives is the Spanish Revolution of 1936. But there it was not collectives that brought about the revolution but rather the revolution that brought about the collectives. Workers in private businesses joined the revolutionary CNT which had a few collectives and some self employed workers. Together they pushed and rode the revolutionary wave that resulted in the overthrow of the liberal capitalist government. After that, many of the shops collectivized. In other words, it was the class struggle of the militant, radical CNT union that sparked the revolution. No economic revolution has EVER been organized by workers’ collectives alone.
If we are arguing for a radical, anarchist communist version of mutual aid, we cannot “confuse the slogan “Abolish Wage Slavery” with the more contemporary slogan “Fire Your Boss”.” The latter assumes that, if workers have direct control, then the economic system of capitalism will suddenly cease to be unequal, based on privilege and injustice.
To the contrary, “the employing class controls most of the market share and therefore sets the economic conditions in which collectives have to compete.” That is why “it is not just the boss that we seek to overthrow, but the entire capitalist class.”
If we want to go beyond the limits of charity and “share not only resources but also, more importantly, control over them” then mutual aid needs to be not just an option but the foundation of societal organisation, in both the workplace and the community. Clearly, having institutions organised on a democratic, cooperative basis is not enough if they still interact with each other on the basis of capitalist ideals of profit and competition.
In fact, as an article in the Economist has argued, “lay-offs, short hours and wage cuts can be achieved without strikes, and agreements are reached faster than in companies that must negotiate with unions and government bodies.” In effect, workers are imposing austerity on themselves and class struggle is bypassed altogether.
Obviously, that magazine was in favour of this as an organ of the bosses. In Freedom newspaper, the LibCom group argued the same point from a workers’ perspective;
Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase, it is a recognition of how capital rules social life. It does this both vertically through the person of the boss, and horizontally, through market forces. Many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy, and so see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism.
However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac. For example, I work in financial services. As you would expect during a financial crisis, we’re feeling the squeeze. There have been redundancies, and the ‘lucky’ survivors are being made to work harder and longer to make up. If we were to turn it into a co-op, those same market forces causing my boss to make cuts would still be there, but we would have nobody to say no to when under pressure to increase the rate of exploitation to survive in a hostile market.
Thus, “success in establishing a co-op is success in swapping one form of alienation for another, proletarian for petit-bourgeois.”
This is an important point, because it is one that some on the libertarian left can get very wrong. For example, in The Commune, Steve Ryan wrote that the last PCS delegate conference “passed , despite NEC opposition, a motion expressing support for workers’ self management (moved by a supporter of The Commune!) Interestingly, support was overwhelming and a call for remittance voted down!”
In reality, the motion was to “seek engagement and influence within the commission” that was “set up by Tessa Jowell MP in her speech on 16 December 2009 on Mutualism.” It is, of course, correct that “steps towards a socialist society based on workers self management are desirable.” However, Tessa Jowell’s Commission on Ownership offers nothing of the sort.
Not only does it still fall to the criticism of “self-managed exploitation,” but it arguably fits into the same category as Cameron’s “Big Society,” the language of the libertarian left serving as “a veil for predatory capitalism to hide behind as it attacks the working class.”
Like Steve, I am both a member of PCS and a libertarian communist. I can also agree that we “should be arguing and debating with members as to the tactics and strategy needed to fight back against the cuts, and linking up with other workers in their locality, forming solidarity committees.” But I disagree that we should take cooperatives, especially when offered up by neo-liberal politicians whose interests are in opposition to the working class, at face value.
Instead of arguing for cooperatives as a revolutionary mechanism, when they aren’t, “our activity should be aimed at increasing the confidence, power and combativity of the wider class.” As I wrote over at Truth, Reason & Liberty, mutual aid institutions need to operate “alongside community organisation to resist the bailiffs, the landlords, and corporations buying up our land,” if they are to “allow us to defend ourselves as a class from the vultures of capitalism.”
Ultimately, the way we organise ourselves should be based on mutual aid and cooperation. But it should not be mutual aid that fits into the norms of the present society, or cooperation that forgoes revolutionary struggle.
In rebuilding a culture of mutual aid across the working class, “we have to learn to stop trying to manage capital and instead try to fight it.”